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Rolls-Royce touts nuclear reactors as key to clean jet fuel
[LONDON] Rolls-Royce Holdings is pitching nuclear reactors as the most effective way of powering the production of carbon-neutral synthetic aviation fuel without draining global electricity grids.
Drawing on technology developed for nuclear-powered submarines, the small modular reactors (SMRs) could be located at individual plants to generate the large amounts of electricity needed to secure the hydrogen used in the process, according to chief executive officer Warren East.
Synthetics and biofuels are likely to become the mainstay of aviation in coming decades, Mr East said, providing liquid propellants for the next generation of aero-engines before the advent of all-electric alternatives. Reactors that could power the hydrogen extraction are small enough to be transported by truck and would occupy a building one-tenth the size of a nuclear power station.
An SMR attached to a synthetic fuel plant would "provide a very competitive solution", Mr East said in a briefing at the Aviation Club in London. Electricity costs would be 30 per cent lower than for a large nuclear facility, matching wind power, with the modular approach allowing parts to be made on a factory production line.
So-called electrofuels are synthesised using carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide captured from sources such as cement production, together with hydrogen derived from water via electrolysis, itself powered by sustainable electricity sources such as wind, solar or nuclear. In the future, direct carbon capture from the atmosphere could sever any link with fossil sources.
London-based Rolls-Royce, Europe's biggest maker of jetliner engines, would partner with a petrochemical specialist or alternative-energy startup to develop the technology, Mr East said.
The proposals face significant obstacles, including widespread public concern about radiation leaks and the safe disposal of nuclear waste, as well as question marks over UK plans to revive the sector after Hitachi and Toshiba withdrew from major projects.
Rolls-Royce aims to minimise regulatory barriers by building an initial network of 16 SMRs on the sites of former UK nuclear power stations still approved for atomic use.
The plants, costing £1.8 billion (S$3.2 billion) apiece, would feed the national grid and come online from the 2030s, with all complete by 2050.